Friday, April 25, 2008

Of Course...

Photo by Jofhus Lott/Reuters

NY Judge Hands Down Not Guilty Verdict in Sean Bell Shooting Death

As I'm coming out of a blended pain and drug haze from dental surgery yesterday, I wanted to keep things light and easy post-wise. I didn't want to have to tackle something as politically, socially and most of all emotionally loaded as this story, dealing with my own small travails, this case's winding down to a finish in the last 72 hours necessitated it. The brutal news:

Three detectives were found not guilty Friday morning on all charges in the shooting death of Sean Bell, who died in a hail of 50 police bullets outside a club in Jamaica, Queens.

Justice Arthur J. Cooperman, who delivered the verdict, said many of the prosecution’s witnesses, including Mr. Bell’s friends and the two wounded victims, were simply not believable. “At times, the testimony of those witnesses just didn’t make sense,” he said.

His verdict prompted several supporters of Mr. Bell to storm out of the courtroom, and screams could be heard in the hallway moments later. The three detectives — Gescard F. Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper — were escorted out of a side doorway. Outside, a crowd gathered behind police barricades, occasionally shouting, amid a veritable sea of police officers.

The verdict comes 17 months to the day since the Nov. 25, 2006, shooting of Mr. Bell, 23, and his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, outside the Club Kalua in Jamaica, Queens, hours before Mr. Bell was to be married.

It was delivered in a packed courtroom and was heard by, among others, the slain man’s parents and his fiancée. The seven-week trial, which ended April 14, was heard by Justice Cooperman in State Supreme Court in Queens after the defendants waived their right to a jury, a strategy some lawyers called risky at the time. But it clearly paid off with Friday’s verdict.

Before rendering his verdict, Justice Cooperman ran through a narrative of the evening, and concluded “the police response with respect to each defendant was not found to be criminal.”

“The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt” that each defendant was not justified in shooting, he said, before quickly saying the men were not guilty of all of the eight counts, five felonies and three misdemeanors, against them.

Mr. Bell’s family sat silently as Justice Cooperman spoke from the bench. Behind them, a woman was heard to ask, “Did he just say, ‘Not guilty?”

Yes...Judge Cooperman did say that.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case's particulars, Steve covered it in depth with several very detailed detailed posts at The News Blog. In a nutshell, seventeen months ago to today, Sean Bell, and two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield were at a bachelor party for Bell at Club Kalua—a divey little strip club in South Jamaica, Queens, about two miles from where I grew up. Upon leaving the club, there was a brief verbal dispute with other parties and the three men—Bell, Benefield and Guzman went to Bell's car to go home.

Graphic from The New York Times

Mr. Bell was to be married later that day. Unbeknownst to the trio, the club was being watched both internally and externally by plainclothes detectives clocking for quality-of-life and liquor-law violations. Several of the plainclothes officers were consuming alcohol to “blend in”. As the trio of young men left the club, one of the officers claimed to hear one of them talk about “going to get his gun or gat”. Several of the officers converged on the car and confronted Mr. Bell and his friends. A brutal one-way shootout ensued where fifty bullets were fired by the officers at the car—31 by one officer—killing Bell and wounding his friends Mssrs. Benefield and Guzman.

There was no weapon present in the car or on the persons within it. Bluntly, it was a city-sanctioned massacre. Post-the initial spat in front of the club, tensions were evidently high and there was dispute as to whether the officers identified themselves properly or at all. Bell's car either lurched forward after he was shot or just before, and the wild and reckless fusillade of bullets flew, some striking an overhead airport monorail station and narrowly missing passengers a block and a half away.

Those are the particulars. Secondary elements of the story include the following:

1.) The officers involved WERE NOT GIVEN BLOOD-ALCOHOL TESTS in spite of the fact that several of them HAD BEEN DRINKING.

2.) As per usual, the officers were allowed to operate under the still-being-phased-out “48 Hour Rule”, where after a deadly and contested shooting, they had 48 hours before they could be questioned by investigators—(and ostensibly “get their stories together) a perk not allowed the general public, as the surviving victims, Benefield and Guzman were interrogated while in the hospital recovering from their wounds.

3.) Also as per usual, the officers opted for a judge trial as opposed to a jury trial, fearing the judgement of regular citizens and instead, placing their fate in the hands of a partner in law enforcement—a judge. This is a common tack taken by New York police to lessen the odds of conviction.

Now, once this case moved to trial, and after of course a change of venue was requested (Cops in New York routinely feel that the people they are policing are not fit to judge their actions), the NYPD pushed for a judge trial. Once that was in effect, the odds of conviction probably dropped by about seventy percent. In spite of the overweening physical evidence—no gun or anything resembling a gun present on the victims and of course, the obvious attack of “contagious shooting”—where even if the initial shot is fired by a police officer, fellow officers react and pretty much empty their clips, Judge Cooperman found for the officers.

I'd love to say that this outcome was shocking, but in New York City it isn't. It is next to impossible to convict an on-duty cop for any sort of wrong-doing against a citizen—even a killing that is fairly obvious a murder in this town. There is a seemingly endless string of such “tragic” deaths. New York police have fallen back on the “Twinkie Defense” (or in NY parlance, the “Cruller Defense”, where over-stimulation due to sugar consumption is taken as a reason for sudden, violent outbursts by cops), mystery seizures that have caused them to freakishly fire their weapons at unarmed Black kids, “black hands from nowhere” that miraculously choked to death victims of police officers, instead of the choke hold applied by the officers (reacting angrily to a errantly-thrown football in a street game striking their squad car).

Par for the course in New York City. I remember calling in to the cartwheeling idiot wingnut Curtis Sliwa's radio show after the infamous Amadou Diallo shooting. I was angry. Livid, actually after a piece of news came my way about what happened in the immediate aftermath of the murder. It turns out that after gunning Diallo down in his vestibule, officers knocked down his apartment door and “tossed” the place—looking for what, no one knows. I asked Sliwa on-air why they did this. “Can you tell me why the NYPD tossed the apartment of an unarmed man they shot down? Give me one good reason for that.” Sliwa stuttered and muttered something about how officers who show up on the scene of shootings often don't know the particulars of what's gone down beforehand. “Things happen” he said before hanging up abruptly.

“Things happen.”

Something always “happens” when it comes down to the NYPD dealing with people in the 'hood. Be they White or Black officers, there is an overwhelming fealty to “the blue”—the force. I have a close relative who worked in NYPD Internal affairs down on Hudson Street for a decade. It was he who told me about how the force doesn't release its numbers on how many are drummed out every year. A force some 37,000 strong. “Nobody wants to hear that number. X-percent of the force getting shit-canned for drinking, drugging and whatever? Just take the 'ten-percent rule' into account. Ten percent of any workforce is shitbirds and fuck-ups. And shitbirds and fuckups tend to gravitate towards each other.” The other factor is that non-shitbirds and fuckups are often covered for by their decent co-horts thanks to the “blue wall of silence”. Said idiots either get drummed out or get classified to the “rubber-gun squad”—a term for malcontents who due to union rules cannot be fired but are instead put on desk duty. Then, beyond those bad actors, there are “questionable” cops who for whatever reason make one huge, bad (and tragic) decision and are knee-jerk looked-out-for by their NYPD brethren as well.

That's what I think happened that night at Club Kalua. Somebody got jumpy, wanted to play tough-guy hero and his twitchy-trigger stupid dragged his fellow officers down that macho road into a storm of one-way gunfire. Add into the mix the decision-clouding element of the classic cop's claim “I felt my life was in danger!”, which is used as the ultimate fallback defense. 'We have no way to know what was on the officers' minds. They may well have been afraid.' That nebulous void of trying to figure out what was on an officer's mind leaves a lot of leeway for one who is pre-disposed to say, “Eh, you know what? Maybe they were scared.” And in spite of the obvious leaps beyond reality that shows like “Law & Order” take, one thing that is a truism is the cozy relationship between the police, district attorneys and judges. They have to work together every day sending civilian criminals to jail, so when you get a case where they are in essence pitted against one another, you get the weirdness where cops choose judge trials instead of juries. An awful lot of back-scratching goes on.

Yeah. Whatever. For Black folk in New York, the Bell killing goes right alongside the others on the mantle full of the unarmed victims whose killers went unpunished. Diallo. Dorismond. Zongo. Glover. Stansbury.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. 41 Shots? 50 shots? What's the difference. The only way you get a little justice in these cases is when the victim is unfortunate enough (for the police) to survive alá Abner Louima. Dead men tell no tales, indeed.

What is interesting is the odd vibe around town, what with Five-O's increased presence and all the talk in the local news about preparations being made for potential violence on the part of protesters. I noticed it this morning while traveling. Beat cops all over the place. Cruisers on the slow-crawl while clocking corner activity. The date and timing of the verdict was well known to all in town. Today, a Friday would be the day and the police were already in place to quell...whatever. The “laugh” here is over the idea that somehow one can actually “prepare” for unrest. And secondly, the idea that there is some sort of automatic default to unrest should a verdict go bad. If that were the case, New York would've been a pile of smoldering rubble decades ago.

The furrowed brows and grave tones of newsfolk over helicopter shots of people gathered outside the courthouse is laughable. 'God we hope there isn't any violence—get a tight shot of that guy with his fists balled up.' Here's how it works, idiots—shit jumps off whenever it wants to. Odds are it won't be when you have several thousand officers in the streets. It'll be random. It'll be away from where you think trouble's brewing. It happens fast and the trigger will be something you never saw coming. That's how it almost always goes. In Detroit in 1967, a raid on a “blind pig” (a Detroit-ism for an after hours spot) set things off. Rough, offensive acts that are compounded by hazy memory and mistaken word-of-mouth are a familiar trigger. Now, let a cop fuck up this weekend and kill a kid with clear evidence of malice and injustice, coming on the heels of this bullshit and you may see some ugliness. I pray to God it doesn't come to that, but Sliwa so casually said to me, “Things happen”.

What doesn't help is that after Rev. Al Sharpton effectively called for calm, and quelled tensions by leading angry people away from the courthouse (on his way to Bell's gravesite), we had the spectacle of Michael Palladino, the head of the NYPD detective's union gloating about the verdict at hi spress conference, replete with cheesy soundbites (“How do I spell relief? N-O-T-G-U-I-L-T-Y! That's how I spell relief!”), along with crass call-outs of Sharpton and other activists, local union leaders who backed the family and pretty much anyone who didn't four-square agree with the NYPD's account. He's the only one of the major players acting like an asshole about the verdict, playing the stereotypical “our way or the highway“ role of “the pig”.

There is a special place in hell for gleeful apologists and cheerers-on of police brutality and I sincerely hope Palladino's descent there is a slow and excruciatingly painful one. It wouldn't be stretch to say that there are a lot of New Yorkers who wouldn't piss on him if he were burning in plastic alongside a road. They'd probably try to put the blaze out with a bottle of Mazola™.

And I wouldn't blame 'em.


Home now and Five-O is on every other corner in pairs on the main drag down the block from me. Looking nervous. They can thank their good friend Mike Palladino for that. It's been a warm day, with more to come.

And “Things happen.”